LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990) was born in Lawrence, Mass., to a Russian Jewish family. His father owned a bookstore in downtown Lawrence and frequently took his son to orchestra concerts, despite his initial opposition to young Leonard’s interest in music that began with the study of piano.
After graduation from Boston Latin School in 1934, Mr. Bernstein attended Harvard University, where he studied music with Walter Piston, the author of many harmony and counterpoint textbooks. After completing his studies at Harvard, Mr. Bernstein enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he received the only “A” grade Fritz Reiner ever awarded in his class on conducting. During his time at Curtis, Mr. Bernstein also studied piano with Isabella Vengerova, orchestration with Randall Thompson, counterpoint with Richard Stöhr and score reading with Renée Longy Miquelle. Mr. Bernstein was among the first American-born and educated conductors to receive worldwide acclaim and was considered by many to be one of the most talented and successful American musicians.
Inspired by his Jewish heritage, Mr. Bernstein completed his first large-scale work, Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah, in 1943; the piece was performed for the first time in 1944 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1944 — conducted by the composer — and received the New York Music Critics’ Award. Serge Koussevitzky, Mr. Bernstein’s conducting instructor at Tanglewood, premiered Mr. Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Mr. Bernstein, who would become Koussevitzky’s conducting assistant, performed as piano soloist. Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, dedicated “To the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy,” was composed in 1963 and premiered by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Mr. Bernstein also is widely known for his musical theater work in West Side Story and On the Town, as well as the operetta Candide.
From 1945 until 1947, Mr. Bernstein served as music director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra. After Koussevitzky’s death in 1951, Mr. Bernstein headed the orchestral and conducting departments at Tanglewood. In 1958, Mr. Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic. From then until 1969, he led more concerts with the orchestra than any previous conductor, and he subsequently held the lifetime title of Laureate Conductor, making frequent guest appearances with the orchestra. More than half of Mr. Bernstein’s 400-plus recordings were made with the New York Philharmonic.
Mr. Bernstein received many awards and honors for the breadth of his work. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, and in 1981 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which gave him a Gold Medal. In 1985, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Mr. Bernstein with the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. From 1957 through 1987, he won 11 Emmy Awards, several for his televised concert and lecture series started with the Omnibus program in 1954 and then the Young People’s Concerts With the New York Philharmonic. Other honors included medals from the Beethoven Society and the Mahler Gesellschaft; the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest honor for the arts; a Tony award (1969) for Distinguished Achievement in the Theater; and dozens of honorary degrees and awards from colleges and universities. In 1990, Mr. Bernstein received the Praemium Imperiale, an international prize created in 1988 by the Japan Arts Association and awarded for lifetime achievement in the arts. He used the $100,000 prize to establish the Bernstein Education Through the Arts (BETA) Fund before his death that same year.
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